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Whether to interview non-users is one of the most controversial questions in market research. Is it better to understand a hardcore user’s perspectives or recruit and interview non-users to know why they reject you? The problem is we’re thinking about the wrong audience. Let’s leave non-users behind and focus instead on the audiences that can really help us: Almost-Users.

Users and Non-users Are Not Opposites

The driving motivator for understanding non-users is understanding what we need to do or say to get them to tip over into the user bucket. Users give you insight into what people like about your product or service. Non-users don’t do the opposite. There is no guarantee they will tell you what they dislike about your product or what you need to do to get them to like it.

The problem with this juxtaposition is that these two choices aren’t apples to apples. They’re not even apples to oranges. Comparing users with non-users is like comparing apples with non-apples. And non-apples could be anything from oranges to bonobos to fish. That’s because a very narrow set of behaviors define users – primarily being that they pay for your product or service or give to your charity.

On the other hand, to say the absence of behavior defines non-users judges them against misleading criteria. Any number of reasons could cause them not to use your product, service, or donate button. Do they purchase your competitor? Do they not use your category of services at all? Do they know you exist as a solution? Do they know they have the problem your product addresses? Do they not value that solution less than other areas of their lives, such as healthcare or video games?

With so many potential options to explain the absence of behavior, research with non-users can become a college cafeteria’s buffet of findings – plenty of options but none of them worth the cost of entry.

Enter the Almost-User

To get the most from research with non-users, you must begin with the Almost-User. The Almost-User is a degree away from your current user. They shop the category or competitors. They are aware of your product or service and may even be interested in it. They have not rejected your brand, but they are resistant to it. They meet all other criteria, but some unexplained lack of desire, motivation, or barrier prevents them from taking that next step. It could be the perception of cost or advice from friends and family. It is often more emotional such as fear of losing the benefits they get from their current behavior, uncertainty about the rewards your service provides, or lack of action due to having too many choices with little differentiation.

Why Almost-User Research is More Productive

The power of studying the Almost-User is that you’re not asking your marketing and sales team to transform a cold call into a loyal customer. That’s akin to alchemy – or turning bonobos into apples. Instead, you’re starting with a warm lead. If you mapped the universe onto a dartboard with your current users in the center, the Almost-User is the ring just outside the center. Moving some of them to the center is always more cost-effective than moving non-users from the outer ring.

So, if you’re looking to recruit and study non-users, set your criteria as a shade of your most loyal user and work back rather than starting from the absence of behavior completely. You’ll discover it’s easier to find them, your interviews with them will be more profound, and the insights and ideas you get out of the research will be far more actionable.

What do you think? Have you faced the challenges of researching non-users? Would you add a point to this post? If so, let us know. We’d love to exchange ideas and chat about what makes for the perfect market research interview.